The top of the NBA Eastern Conference standings remained congested through the final days of the regular season, presenting unusual opportunities for strategy and manipulation.
The Bucks, the defending NBA champions, essentially had first choice. If they defeated the undermanned Cavaliers in their final game, they would have locked up the No. 2 seed, which meant a first-round matchup against the flawed but immensely talented Nets.
Milwaukee sat its best players and lost, deciding to take its chances elsewhere. Later in the day, the Celtics could have lost to the Grizzlies and dropped out of the No. 2 spot, but they did not flinch. They defeated Memphis and vowed to be ready for whatever teams ended up in front of them.
Now, they are in position to be rewarded.
By falling to No. 3, Milwaukee either reasoned it was fine with surrendering home-court advantage in the conference semifinals, or believed the seventh-seeded Nets would advance.
The Celtics swept the Nets, though, and the Bucks soon will be reminded what TD Garden sounds like in spring, with the series set to open in Boston Sunday. To move on, Milwaukee will have to win here at least once, no easy task.
“It wasn’t something where it was like, ‘Oh, yeah, this is something,’ ” Celtics guard Marcus Smart said of the Bucks’ approach. “It happened. We see it. I mean, it’s part of the game. That was their choice, and they decided to do that, and that’s on them. We’re not worried about anybody else but ourselves.
“We can care less about what anybody else does. They’re the defending champs so they have every right to do what they please. If that means that they thought by doing that, they didn’t need home court against us or weren’t too worried about us, that’s fine. We’ll go out and we will play our game and let our game do the talking and see where it leads us.”
The Bucks never imagined having to do this without All-Star forward Khris Middleton, who is out indefinitely after spraining his knee in Milwaukee’s Game 2 loss to the Bulls April 20.
The team said Middleton will be reevaluated in about one week, but multiple reports have indicated that the sharpshooter is expected to miss the entire series, putting even more on the shoulders of superstar forward Giannis Antetokounmpo.
“We talked to our guys about being ready at all times, and [the Bucks] almost haven’t missed a beat with [Middleton] being out,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said. “The way he scores is different, but other guys will take more on their shoulders and other guys will have improved roles.”
Smart stressed that Milwaukee remains formidable even without one of its All-Stars, and that is true, but there is no doubt that Boston’s task is considerably less daunting.
Antetokounmpo remains a one-man wrecking ball, of course, but without Middleton lurking on the perimeter, Boston’s top-ranked defense will be able to turn more of its attention toward the former MVP.
In three games against the Celtics this season, Antetokounmpo averaged 28.3 points, 10.3 rebounds, and 4.3 assists. Milwaukee went 2-1, but Jayson Tatum and Al Horford missed one of Boston’s losses.
“We want to limit his paint points as much as we can, limit the fouls and free throws,” Udoka said. “And obviously, it’s easier said than done. But if you can make him score and take certain shots from the perimeter, I think that’s beneficial. So, the thing with us is meeting him with some physicality, not let him get a head of steam and get into the paint without being touched.”
Against the Nets, the Celtics had to slow an incredibly skilled lineup that was led by Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. The Bucks will lean more on their size, with an imposing front line that now includes Antetokounmpo, the 7-foot Brook Lopez, and the 6-foot-10-inch Bobby Portis, who has replaced Middleton.
“They’re a bigger team, so it’s probably going to be a more physical matchup just from that standpoint,” Tatum said. “They just pose different challenges than Brooklyn does and it’s something that we’ve got to prepare for.”
Lopez was limited to 13 games this season because of a foot injury, and while he was out, Milwaukee embraced its speed and had one of the league’s most fearsome fast-break attacks, with Antetokounmpo leading the way.
That approach has been altered slightly now that Lopez is back and Portis has replaced Middleton, but the Celtics would still prefer to see the Bucks in half-court sets, where Antetokounmpo’s value is at least slightly diluted.
“We all know what Giannis is capable of, what he’s doing and what he’s going to try to do,” Smart said. “For us, it’s just going to take a team effort and with those guys. He makes it really tough because of how aggressive he is and how he can get in the lane to not only create for himself, but create for those other guys.”